Many of the bats in North America are in serious danger – but would it help them add them to the list of threatened species with the US government?
Populations of bats, especially in the northeast, are destroyed by white-nosed or WNS syndrome. Originally identified in 2006 in New York, WNS is rapidly spreading into bats' habitats in the eastern part of the continent, from Canada, to the south as the Mississippi. The disease is named after the characteristic fungus that appears on the nymphs and winged membranes of the affected bats. Millions of bats have died among the seven affected species in North America.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has recently included one of these species – the northern ears as a threat. Although it is not as difficult to list as endangered, the endangered status still provides protection through regulations set out in the Endangered Species Act, including prohibitions on damaging members of species or destroying their habitats, except under certain conditions.
Unfortunately, the problem of bats has nothing to do with the trees they spend during the summer or everything that happens after the normal winter hibernation. The mushroom attacks them in their hibernacula (ie the caves and mines where they spend the winter). Still, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued regulations limiting the cutting of trees where bats bite. This will complicate and potentially restrict activities ranging from forestry and oil drilling to housing and landscaping.
Some industries are resisting, on an unreasonable basis, that expensive, destructive steps to eventually keep bats in the summer will not achieve anything if these bats return to caves where they will die in the winter. The public is invited to comment on the proposed rules by July. Neil Kirby, a spokesperson for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, told The Wall Street Journal that "the agency itself has admitted that the industry is not the culprit for the death of the bat, namely that fungal disease." (1)
When the population density of a species in a given region falls so low that surviving individuals can not find helplines with which to reproduce, there is a moment in which each individual counts. The office can just try to buy the bats for some time. However, the WNS distribution rate suggests that this experience will not be enough.
In Vermont the little brown bats who visited my home every summer almost disappeared without a trace. While the bats' range is wide enough that it is not yet at risk of extinction, Vermont and other East European countries have been alarmed that their populations may disappear within 15 years if WNS continues to be out of control. The Northern Long Whites, who also lives in Vermont but is not nearly as far west, may be in a more immediate danger of complete extinction.
If we really want to protect the bats of the risky species, or we will have to go to key winter habitats and defuse them during the summer months, or we will have to pursue a captive breeding program to keep alive enough bats to preserve. gene species of the species until longer treatment for the disease is detected. The latter option may not even be possible; Unlike rodents, for example, bats do not have large litters and thus return the population slowly over time. The Home Department has published a National Response Plan in 2011, and several countries also have WNS response plans, most of which include some combination of population monitoring, disease research, and decontamination efforts.
One of the arguments for recognizing a species as endangered or threatened is to draw attention to the situation of the species. The government needs to take serious conservation measures to keep the habitats under pressure and environmentalists can highlight the severe nature of the situation. But the situation of bats is well known. Given the mixed popular reputation of bats, the volume of basic coverage and sympathy may even be surprising.
But only sympathy will not save the bat populations. Increased financial support can help in pursuing a cure, but so far the best we can do is try to slow down WNS. There is no way to stop it, and identifying an endangered or endangered species will not change that fact. If it is possible to remove the fungus in critical habitats and maintain it – a proposal that is far from certain at this point – no one has yet devoted enough money and labor to determine how to do it and apply this plan.
While and unless we find a cure, all our other efforts probably can not do anything but a slow delay to the inevitable. We can also wait for bats to deal with the natural selection problem, which we can hope to bring to a more sustainable population. There is justification for this hope in the example of the European bats who have been living with the WNS for centuries before being inadvertently brought here, perhaps by cave explorers. If natural selection does not work, bats can eventually settle the affected areas in the distant future if the fungus disappears alone.
None of these solutions is guaranteed. But we have not found anything more useful so far. Adding bats to lists of endangered or endangered species will not do much but make us feel that we are doing something useful even if we are not.
1) The Wall Street Journal, "The Rules for the Protection of the Bat"